Like a psychedelic trip
At the end of the memory lane: Ed Roth
We were about to interview Mad Mike, the crazy automotive electrician and car customizing guru at Galpin Auto Sports where Mike works and where all kinds of vehicles are tuned and customized. The showroom was full of gorgeous vintage cars and custom built rides and my receptors were smoking because of system overload. While waiting for Mad Mike, we got into bionic mode and quickly scanned the rows. The sight was amazing, but some of the custom cars just didn't fit the scene. They looked like relics from another era (well, OK, not even the vintage cars were like the ones seen on Pimp My Ride).
Looking at them was like browsing a Revell or AMT plastic model catalogue from the 60's and 70's. Mind-blowing psychedelic shapes realized in glass fiber reinforced plastic, decorated with shiny chrome thingies. I have never used psychoactive drugs, but I think this is what my first LSD trip might be like. All of a sudden, in front of an odd shaped car I realized I was looking at Ed Roth's legendary Orbitron. This is a car I already knew from different articles, one that must have been inspired by Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
Many of you may never have heard of Ed Roth. The automotive artist also known as Big Daddy passed away in 2001, but became a legend already in his lifetime. Born in 1932, he joined the US Air Force in the 50's and after his honorable discharge started to live his dream of working on cars. The part-time activity soon became more than just a hobby. By 1959 his first custom car had rolled out: it was the 1930 Ford A-based Little Jewell with a chromed chassis, custom suspension and engine, and a fairly conservative design.
Right after finishing Little Jewell he started a new project, which forced him to part with the car. The money he had received for Little Jewell was spent on chroming several components of the new ride. This car, the Outlaw was far more special than its predecessor: it brought a new style, new looks and new materials were used for the build. The body parts of the Outlaw were made of Glassfiber Reinforced Plastic (GFRP or GRP) – an exotic material at the time – which Ed Roth loved for its lightness, strength, durability and for being easy to mold into odd shapes.
The use of GRP allowed him to create the unusually shaped bodies that his cars became known for all across the US. His creatures were so popular that they were downscaled to 1/25 and sold as plastic model kits by Revell. Exactly how popular, you might ask? Well, for every kit Revell sold Ed Roth received one cent. In 1962 Revell sent a money transfer of 32 000 USD to Ed Roth's account. I did my math: that single year Revell sold 3.2 million Ed Roth kits. That's a huge fan club.
Apart from cars he sold T-shirts and posters of his signature cartoon characters. Of all this hot rodding, motorcycle riding, not particularly cute bunch of monsters Rat Fink turned out to be the most popular one. This character became a part of the Hot Rod culture, often seen on stickers placed on custom cars.
So, there we were, standing next to Ed Roth's cars, and I was lost for words. Especially at the sight of the already mentioned Orbitron, a real mind-blowing object, clearly a child of the marijuana smoke-filled, LSD-dazzled 60's. According to Ed Roth, this particular car was not a big success at shows because all the shiny chrome parts were invisible, hidden under the GRP body. The spectators probably weren't ready for the car's trademark lights, either. It wasn't the number of lights that confused them (six in all, by the way), or the sight of three of those headlights arranged in a triangle. The real trick was to have these three lights painted in red, green and blue respectively and making them focus in one point to create a white beam on the road. We all know this trick, in fact, you're seeing it right now: your monitor is operating by the same principle by mixing RGB colors Red, Green and Blue to create the image.
The car was later sold by Roth, and for decades no one really knew what had happened to it in until a Hot Rod fan discovered it in Mexico decades later. It was parking in front of a sex shop in Juarez, humiliated, dismembered and covered in matt black paint and a thick layer of dust. As the acrylic bubble top was missing, people were using it as a litter box. As usual, its owner did not want to sell the Orbitron (missing its complete nose section) for emotional reasons, but after a while the fans of Ed Roth managed to convince the muchacho to sell it (money talks...), and the remains of the legendary Orbitron got back to California.
With a little detour the car got to GAS's Beau Boeckman, who was determined to restore it to its former glory. The guys at GAS tried to have all the missing parts replicated by the original experts working on the Orbitron back in the 60's. The restoration was not an easy and cheap project, though: polishing and chrome plating all the shiny components (hidden by the body parts) alone cost over 40,000 dollars. The restored Orbitron was presented to the spectators at a show on the 18th of October 2008, and the fans, naturally, went nuts.
So, there we were, standing next to the Orbitron with Mad Mike who goes without saying – had been involved in the restoration. Just a couple of feet away there was the Globe Hopper, the Secret Weapon, the Rotar, The Great Speckled Bird, all those sick and stunning show cars. But there was an odd one out, too: Ed Roth's personal Honda N600 micro car, covered in pin striping and sign paintings by Ed.
We only had about ten minutes for the whole collection, just enough time to take some pictures, but hardly enough to really understand what treasures we were surrounded by. Those cars are, no doubt, real gems, important parts of the history of hot rod culture. They may seem less significant to us, Europeans, but in a country where people customizing cars and motorcycles are considered artists and their creations are seen as works of art rather than vehicles, these machines are very important indeed.
Should you want to learn more about the life of Ed Roth, watch the movie “Tales of the Rat Fink”. John Goodman is the voice of Roth, while the different characters are dubbed by stars like Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, Bill Gibbons of ZZ Top, and Paul Le Mat of American Graffiti fame. Not to mention Jay Leno. This list of names should make it clear for everyone that Ed Roth really was an important person in the history of car culture.
For more information on the history of the Orbitron, visit the dedicated website, and don't forget to check out Ed “Big Daddy” Roth's official homepage, where you can find out a lot more about Ed and get your hands on some Rat Fink merchandise.